Updated: Jan 11
Romans 9–11 are sometimes considered definitive chapters of scripture that establish Calvinism and falsify Arminianism. The assumption is that Arminians must either ignore these chapters or explain them away. My Calvinist friends (yes, I said friends) are sometimes surprised to discover that I happily make my case for Arminian theology based on Romans 9–11 and not despite them.
Paul’s vision of election in Romans 9–11 is also relevant for my reading of another key text often thought to lead inevitably to Calvinism, namely the “golden chain” of Romans 8:28–30. That is the way Justin Dillehay portrays his experience in an article titled “How Romans 8 Made Me a Calvinist” written for The Gospel Coalition earlier this year. His testimony that the golden chain made him a Calvinist suggests that it indisputably rules out Arminian theology. With this response, I offer a few contextually oriented reasons why that is not the case. I’ll make my case by first taking up Paul’s view of election in Romans 9–11, and then I’ll draw on that to provide an Arminian interpretation of the golden chain.
Before we begin, let me say that I appreciate the tone of Justin’s essay. He fairly represents the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism. He rightly recognizes that Arminians see God as influencing people to receive the salvation God alone provides, which stands in contrast to the Calvinist view that God works in people to effect and guarantee the salvation that he alone provides. Justin explains how he came to see the overall movement in Romans 8:30 from divine foreknowing to glorifying as being more about guarantee than influence. Thus, Romans 8 made him a Calvinist. But this need not be. Arminian theology offers a faithful interpretation of Romans 8:28–30. Indeed, Arminian theology celebrates these verses.
Election in Romans 9–11
If you were to sit down to read Romans 9, you may very well find yourself tempted to adopt an unconditional view of individual election. It certainly seems to be there, at least on first reading. After all, the apostle declares that God’s election comes before birth and depends not on anything we've done – good or bad (9:11). It’s there in black and white, “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau” (9:13). And again, “it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (9:16). I could go on.
But if you were tempted toward a Reformed view of unconditional individual election by reading Romans 9, you might find Paul’s argument somewhat surprising when you arrive at Romans 11. After all, it’s there Paul entertains the possibility that God might exert his sovereign power to “cut off” justified believers if they fall into unbelief. That warning comes in the context of Romans 11:17–25 where Paul addresses the Roman recipients by drawing attention to their trust in Jesus, “You stand only through faith,” (11:20). And since we’ve read Romans 3–4, we know standing by faith means they are justified. They have peace with God (Romans 5), union with Christ (Romans 6), and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8). Yet Paul does not say something like: you stand by faith, and that means you’ll be preserved to the end. Instead, the apostle warns, “perhaps he [God] will not spare you” (11:21). He puts it differently a few verses later, when he says that if the recipients do not continue in faith and in God’s kindness, “you also will be cut off” (11:22). Note the significance of these verses. The apostle Paul entertains and warns about the real possibility that people who are justified by faith may, at some point, be cut off and not spared. Those verses make me Arminian.
Consider the implications. If Paul thinks justified persons can be cut off from grace, then he cannot think of individual election to salvation in unconditional terms. And in fact, he does not. In Romans 11:17–25, the condition for staying in God’s kindness is belief (Greek pistis), and the condition for being cut off is unbelief (Greek apistis). Paul sets forth his understanding of this condition first in terms of unbelieving Israel in 11:20, “They were broken off because of their unbelief (apistis).” In contrast, and as we saw above, the Roman recipients currently stand by justifying faith (pistis, 11:20). It’s worth noting that Paul’s pronouns here are singular and not plural. He is addressing the individual member of the Roman congregation about his or her personal faith. And what is the condition under which such an individual might be cut off? For Paul, it’s the same as it was for the individual Israelite, namely apistis, or unbelief. Given that Paul thinks these justified-by-faith people might be cut off for falling into unbelief, he cannot at the same time consistently think that their individual election is unconditional. To the contrary, the apostle portrays individual entrance into ultimate and final salvation as conditioned upon continued faith in Christ. But if this is true, what are we to make of Romans 9 and the temptation to build a doctrine of unconditional election upon it? Fortunately, Arminian readings of Romans 9 offer help.
Reconsidering Romans 9
Whatever we ultimately say about Romans 9–11, we must acknowledge that these chapters constitute a single coherent argument. And if Paul portrays individual election as conditional in chapter 11, then whatever he says about election in chapter 9 must be coherent with what he says in chapter 11. So, let’s take another look at chapter 9.
The argument begins with God’s promise to Abraham to give him a son. The focus of the text is the priority of God’s promise to do something for Abraham that the man could not do for himself, namely give him a family. The promise is then traced through Abraham’s family to Rebecca and her sons – Jacob and Esau. That brings us to Romans 9:11–12 where Paul asserts the unconditionality of election and substantiates it with a quote from Genesis 25:23, “The elder (Esau) shall serve the younger (Jacob).” And this is an instance where the context of the Old Testament quotation is critical. In Genesis 25:23, God says this to Rebecca as Esau and Jacob struggle within her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” Here the choice of Jacob over Esau is explicitly construed with their representative function in view. The point of the choice has nothing to do with either man’s individual election to salvation. Are we to conclude from this that Esau is burning in hell? That doesn’t come up. What is said about Jacob and Esau has everything to do with the election and passing over of the groups, respectively, who will descend from them. If we interpret Paul’s Old Testament quote in light of its original context, then we must conclude that unconditional election in Romans 9–11 is unconditional corporate election and not unconditional individual election.
It’s significant that the notion of corporate election shows up at the beginning of Paul’s argument in Romans 9–11 and suggests the subsequent parts of the argument should be read in light of that corporate dynamic. This suggestion is substantiated by the presence of corporate language as the argument progresses. Romans 9:25–26 highlights the possibility of movement from non-elect status into the elect community. That’s what is meant when those described as “not my people” people are made part of God’s beloved and chosen family. Someone might object by pointing to Pharaoh in 9:17. Is he not an individual elected to destruction? But Pharaoh doesn’t here function as the paradigmatic reprobate destined for damnation. Paul says nothing about Pharaoh’s eternal destiny. The point is that God used Pharaoh (who likely represents Egypt) as an instrument to vindicate his promises to the Patriarchs. This God keeps his promises to his people. And lest we think such an instrumental use of Pharaoh might be unfair or unjust. Let’s remember that the Egyptian ruler is an idolatrous pagan oppressor of the people of God. He is not neutral, and God is not unfair. Pharaoh deserved everything he got. Paul’s point is not to show us some unconditionally elect individuals in contrast to other unconditionally reprobate individuals. His point is to vindicate God’s faithfulness to his covenant people as the God who always keeps his promises. And God is not unjust to employ sinners in the amplification of his glory in keeping his word.
To summarize the argument to this point, Paul articulates two categories of election in Romans 9–11. One is unconditional corporate election to salvation, and the other is conditional individual election to salvation. The parts of Romans 9–11 that describe unconditional election are dealing with the group. The parts of Romans 9–11 that describe conditional election are dealing with the individual. This solves the apparent inconsistency and provides a framework for a coherent reading of the whole of Romans 9–11.
What about the “golden chain”?
Given what we’ve found regarding election in Romans 9–11, what can we say about the nature of election in Romans 8:28–30? Alongside other Arminian interpreters, I suggest that we should understand the so-called “golden chain” in terms of unconditional corporate election to salvation. We’ve already seen that Paul’s unconditional language applies to groups, while his conditional language applies to individuals. So, if God will unconditionally glorify those he foreknows, then it suggests Paul is here thinking primarily of the group over the individual.
The question then becomes whether there is evidence in the immediate context to substantiate this claim. It turns out there is. Paul employs group designations in a variety of places in Romans 8. Consider, for one, his use of familial language. Sons (or children) of God is an expressly corporate designation (8:14, 16, 17, 19, 21). That Paul is thinking of the group when he uses that term is evident in the masculine “sons” (Greek huioi), which is an inclusive term describing the group of individuals, whether men or women, who are indwelt by the Spirit of God. That familial image is also prominent in Romans 8:28–30, which suggests those verses should be understood with a view to their corporate dimensions. The golden chain is about membership in "a large family" (8:29). It is about the group of those who are foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. As we saw in Romans 11:17-25, individuals may move into that group on the condition of faith or out of it on the condition of unbelief.
Other arguments could also be made. For example, I’ve argued extensively that Paul’s hope for resurrection in Romans 8 should be understood with an emphasis on the social group (Paul and the Resurrected Body, 134–165). This plays out particularly in terms of Paul’s incorporative Christology and pneumatology. Suffice it to say there are plenty of well-established reasons for thinking Paul’s view of unconditional election is primarily a corporate category. That is not to disregard the individual reality of personal salvation; it is to put the conditionality of personal salvation in its proper context. God saves individuals, but he saves them as part of a group.
Based on, not in spite of
Let’s dispense with the notion that Arminians can only be Arminians despite texts like Romans 8:28–30 and Romans 9–11. We Arminians are not engaged in efforts to sidestep or explain away those passages. To the contrary, our entire theological system is built on careful exegesis of these texts and confidence in their trustworthiness. That’s why Romans 9–11 (and Romans 8) make me Arminian.
NB: You might be interested to know the the most extensive and detailed available exegesis of Romans 9 is written by an Arminian scholar. Take a look at Brian Abasciano's Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9.1-9: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis and Paul's Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9.10-18: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis. Brian is currently finishing up a third volume that finishes out Romans 9:19-33. Three books, all on Romans 9, all written by an Arminian.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.